The smells of steamed rice cakes, fresh urine and fried sweets mix with smoke and dust and waft past the piece of cloth that attempts to cover my nose and mouth. I am a woman–and a foreign one–walking among human beings that think the white-skinned almost mythical, and most certainly magical. Walking quickly to avoid being discovered, I grab my sagging nose piece and tuck it back into place. With my vision blocked by the makeshift shroud, I struggle to avoid the deep, mud-filled ruts in the dirt road that stretches out toward a huge, temporary gate constructed with colorful fabric. Yards and yards of yellow, red, indigo, purple and white gabardine have been carefully stretched out across anchored lengths of bamboo to form the most outlandish structure I have ever seen: The gateway to the pir shaheb bari.
By the time we reach the gate, my entourage has increased to include five or so curious old men, seven or eight youngsters and two mangy dogs. We stop in front of the gate and my escorts behold the structure and then look to me for affirmation. With their help, I haltingly read the gaudy gold letters written across it: The Holy Eneyetpur Oros Sharif. My ability to read the words becomes the talk of the morning despite the fact that my companions (large and small alike), eager to hear me say the words emblazoned on their beloved gate, have encouraged and supported me each painful syllable of the way.
What is practiced at Oros Sharif is a form of Sufism, a mystic order which originated in Iran, I am told, around 110-200 AD. It is practiced in varying ways in nearly every Islamic nation today, including Egypt, Morocco, Malaysia, Turkey, Pakistan and India. Oros Sharif in Eneyetpur is an annual gathering that commemorates the death of a great saint, or pir–inviting his soul, along with the souls of other spiritual leaders and followers, to take part in a celebration of life and a spiritual exploration of self.
Moving on toward the pir shaheb bari, the little hand of my escort–a sprightly, robust girl of about eight–reaches out to grab mine. The layout of the town has changed since I saw it two days before. A huge patchwork of blankets and straw, personal belongings and lounging men have spread out to obliterate the quiet country landscape. The dry little hand offers me an unexpected sense of assurance as we speed along toward our destination.
Colorful canvas tarpaulins are stretched over what seems to be the whole town, offering the visitors a bit of protection from the elements. As we hurry through the patchwork, a bearded man wearing a prayer cap pulls an armful of fresh rice straw from a massive yellow pile and sets off toward his companions who rest on a ragged red bedroll nearby, smoking cheap Indian cigarettes. “Mamshaheb,” my escort announces as we pass through a series of heavily guarded, makeshift gates, and each hastily opens to let us pass.
Before I know it, I am being dragged through a series of long, winding passageways. I have to assume that the child knows what she is doing and that the more direct route is not available to us. I don’t know where to begin asking my questions, and it’s just as well. My escort’s voice would hardly be audible over the clamor created by the mass of humanity we traverse. Through damp straw-strewn courtyards we pass; courtyards that I visited mostly empty, days earlier, to meet the wife of the great saint. I notice that there are only women here. Women are washing themselves, their babies, their clothes and their dishes, tending to children, who are waking up from their night’s sleep. Here a solitary woman rocks or moans. There, a toothless waif cries out jumbled segments of a song–eyes closed–oblivious to the events going on around her. Knowing that the potential for achieving altered states of consciousness is one of the most powerful attractions to Oros Sharif, I try not to stare. But I marvel at the visitor’s ability to escape, in this way, from the hardship of her meager existence. The other women carry out their chores. All is as it should be.
After finding our way through a maze of adjoining rooms, we finally end our journey in front of a large pillow-strewn bed. My escort quickly bends down to touch the feet of the woman, PirMa, who sits smiling and eating a bowl of milky sweets. A milky substance has dribbled and a large clump dangles from a mole on her chin and drips off to stain the well-worn scarf that drapes her ample bosom. I bend to touch PirMa’s feet. The woman, looking pleased to see me, suggests that I go out into the courtyard and take part in the fun. PirMa is the only surviving wife of the celebrated saint. For most of the visitors, she is the closest thing there is to divinity.
It is dark, and Oros is in full swing. My five-year-old daughter is with me on one of our clandestine tours of the neighborhood. Concealed in darkness, we find a crevasse between two wooden structures and peer out. We watch as the guests arrive. They have reached a state of excitement that feels to me like a spiritual frenzy. They are working their way toward their destination, in no particular hurry, from God only knows where, carrying what they have to offer. With them they also carry the hopes that they will have the chance to commune with the departed souls of the pious entities who have also been invited. One group of about twelve arrives as we watch. Balancing the arms of a brightly painted palanquin full of chickens on their shoulders, they chant a song with steadily increasing intensity. Others follow, leading goats and small cows, carrying pots containing spices and other offerings.
I draw on the information provided me by young informants. One has told me he was at the pir shaheb bari when fifty tons of potatoes arrived by truck, along with a half ton of unprocessed gingerroot and hundreds of large sea fish that arrived by boat. Fruit and vegetables, my sources say, are piling up in corners of the food preparation area. The storage areas are all full, and now incoming fruits and vegetables are being stored in piles along the roadside. Here it has all been brought and offered up to the pir shaheb bari.
Hours have passed since my two young daughters surrendered to sleep after a day of playful abandon. The house is dark, and I remain under the mosquito netting, exuberant. I listen for the rhythm of their breath from either side of me in the darkness. It has been a day I will not soon forget. Sound penetrates the corrugated tin walls of the family bungalow. My body absorbs the rhythmic waves of sound and emotion surging everywhere. The vibration engulfs me with a primal spell, and beckons me inward. For the past four nights, the chanting has increased in strength and fervor. I burst with unnamed emotion–energized.
The winter sunshine warms the chill from my bones. February nights in Bangladesh are chilly, but bathing is an important ritual for children and adults alike–especially during the sacred time of Oros Sharif. As I sit on a mat made of woven papyrus, watching my daughter play in a red plastic tub filled with warm water, I replay the conversation I had with my mother-in-law the night before. Before climbing the rickety wooden stairway to the upper level of the bungalow, I had told her of my interest in witnessing the serving of breakfast to the guests. I wonder if she remembers her promise now that she is immersed in her work.
Squeals of excitement interrupt my thoughts as a group of children enter the courtyard describing the six massive Indian cows and two camels that have arrived from Chandra Para, a community two miles to the north. Faridpur Pir, they added, had also sent twenty cows and five truckloads of rice. As the children chatter off excitedly, a lone child arrives to tell me that I am being summoned. True to her word, my mother-in-law has sent the small messenger to escort me safely to the work area. Breathless, the child works with the maidservant and soon they have helped me to cover my skin and clothing with a dark scarf so I can pass through the streets unnoticed.
PirMa’s house, along with a large number of other houses belonging to various other members of the saint’s immediate and extended family, is securely enclosed. So while in the courtyard, although outside, the women are actually inside. The resulting segregation allows the women and men to maintain a certain amount of normalcy in what is typically a very segregated life. And although each group is in the company of hundreds of people, each can carry on, unimpeded, since all of the followers consider themselves family. In front of their brothers, the men can feel at ease. And among their sisters, the women can maintain their personal routines without sacrificing their personal dignity.
I am directed to my place in a line that spans the length of the huge courtyard to become part of an army, with bowls marching from hand to hand across to the other side. The bowls are all filled with the same milky stuff that was dripping off PirMa’s mole, sopped up with pieces of steamed rice cake. After the guests are served, each server takes a plate for herself and devours its contents as though it is the most sumptuous treat she can imagine.
It isn’t long before some of my young friends emerge from the buzzing crowd, out of breath, asking me if I want to go to the market. Since I am within the female compound, I am no longer wearing my covering, and I tell them reluctantly that I am not properly dressed. Never mind, they say, the market is only for women.
Once we reach the market, it seems that the only way to get anywhere is to simply shove through. I don’t know where we are going. But my escort has a particular corner of the market in mind, and so she goes, pulling me along. The visitors are pressed together in a tight mass, reaching over one another, pushing to make their way through to a particular vendor, and once there, fingering the merchandise, comparing quality and price, and holding up trinkets and strings of beads and bright, cheaply made toys for their children’s inspection. It is all here: baskets and shining aluminum bowls of every size and shape imaginable, tea sets, glittering bangles, imitation gold jewelry, fans, sandals, flyswatters, sunglasses, saris, religious books, combs and brushes, knives, prayer rugs–anything a road-worn pilgrim could want or need.
By the end of our shopping excursion, I feel lucky to have escaped the place relatively unscathed, with a small blown-glass jug for myself and a miniature dish set for my daughter, having lost only one shoe in the sea of bodies when my person was physically caught up in a sudden swelling shift. The lost shoe is of little consequence, when I grapple with the idea that my body might very well have been sucked under and broken beneath the great tide.
It is eight in the morning. Tensions run high. Small children from the household next door enter our bungalow, their enthusiasm unrestrained. “Come and see the procession!” they beg me. “There’s going to be a parade to the pir shaheb bari!” Sure enough, stepping out of the front door, I am stricken by the extent of the preparation that has been going on. Animals of every shape and color have been led into the yard. Young cousins and uncles place their finishing touches. A dash of red paint, a red poplin ruffle, a blue sash. At the other end of the courtyard, two young boys hold the poles of a bright red banner displaying the family name along with the Islamic symbol and praises to the beloved saint. Of course no females are allowed to join the procession, so I follow a group of young girls to a place where we can look out over it as it passes through the town. Through courtyards, behind houses, and through tight passageways we race, to a house that is known to have just the right positioning, and then up a rickety stairway–apparently not climbed for months–into an attic which has been similarly abandoned. We make our way over and around dust and cobweb-covered wooden drums, broken chairs, trunks, reams of newsprint and wads of dingy linen. Making our way to the window on the other side, we throw open the shutters and stand waiting, the excitement building there in the attic to levels to be matched only by those in the procession below. Huge Indian cows gaze nonchalantly at the pageantry with their deep brown eyes, their horns spanning wider than a large man’s outstretched arms, curling gracefully downward with breathtaking extravagance. Flocks of goats, large and small, sheep, and native white steers amble along decorated with headdresses and sashes. Splashes of paint identify contributor. Young boys and men in their brightest white punjabis proudly lead the animals through the dusty little town. Marching, marching, unsuspecting with their owners, to the pir shaheb bari, where they will all meet their death in a ritual sacrifice, be butchered and stewed.
Heads begin to arrive as a signal that the procession has ended. Women in each household have readied their kitchens for the preparations. Brain, tongue, and the bits of meat that come from the head of a sacrificed animal are coveted, as is any gift from the pir shaheb bari. Nothing is wasted. The stench of boiling meat will soon waft across courtyards to mingle with the odors of dung from the now-dead animals.
This is Oros. It engulfs the village for a week. And then, just as quickly, Eneyetpur returns back to normal.
On the third day of the festival I help in the food line. I stand as part of a living, breathing organism, made up of what seems like a hundred women, who serve in the particular area I am in. During Oros Sharif, the residents of Eneyetpur eat their meals at the pir shaheb bari without any monetary requirement. To distinguish themselves from the out-of-town guests, they wear brightly colored visors, supplied by the bari. Despite the fact that they are made in Bangladesh, these visors smack of the same outlandishness as the great cloth gate. The Eneyetpur women–draped in their indigenous clothing–wear them with apparent pride, oblivious to the incongruence the image creates in my small mind. Indeed, constructed from synthetic materials as they are–intended, surely, for export–they grate on my sense of the aesthetic and remain the solitary reminder that I am indeed still in the twentieth century.
Visiting women and children file in and situate themselves along the walls, and then back to back, in lines so they can be easily served. They crouch with their tins and plates and bowls brought from home as they await their blessed meal. And although the meal is blessed, there are always a number of unsatisfied customers who don’t think they got their share. But for the most part, all the guests are filled and satisfied, perhaps not with second helpings, but enough to carry out in their dishes to eat later. The out-of-town visitors pay a nominal two to four Taka for a meal to help cover incidentals and contribute to the operational expenses that the bari incurs throughout the year.
“Move into line and take your place with your children,” the loudspeaker blares, crackling with harsh static. “Empty the tar-curry into your own container as quickly as possible, so that we can take your bowl and use it again for those who are still waiting.” The woman who throws her voice out into the jumbled mass of women looks at me mischievously over her glasses. It is obvious that wielding such power is a rare treat. Her voice exudes eternal patience.
I recognize her as one of the two young women who had snatched me out of the serving line the previous day to wash dishes. Risking the possibility that I might not want to join them, they had grabbed me by the elbows and led me to a great mound of unwashed bowls. The dishes are heavy, made of baked red clay. They had set me down with a group of other women who were hard at work with coconut fiber, a couple of well-worn synthetic sponges, huge pots of water, and a coffee can of household detergent. I had served as an elemental cog in the washing of a stream of continuously-arriving dishes. First through plain water, then soapy water, and then through clear water, the dishes passed. Then, before returning them to the cooking area, we rinsed them a final time in clear water. As the dishes came out of the water, they were cycled back to be first filled with rice and tar-curry, and then through seventy or so pairs of hands to their new destinations.
Two hours have passed since we began to serve the tar-curry. The line of hungry visitors is thinning out and the Eneyetpuri women are getting down to business. They are ready to wrap up their work so that they can go home and expedite their own household chores. As a member of the serving committee, I wait for the last of the guests to be seated so that we can begin to serve the food. Our guests, I am told, are from a wide variety of backgrounds. But the ones that stand out in my mind are the mentally infirm, the deformed, the maimed and the impoverished. Shabbily dressed children cling to the faded pleats of their mothers’ once brightly colored saris. Barefooted, the children sit looking up at their mothers with hungry eyes. My eyes survey the area for familiar faces. I feel at home as I begin to identify the faces and hands of loved ones in the crowd. Sensing that my line has more than enough servers, I move into another that is somewhat thinner. I look across and catch a glimpse of Cousin Rosie, who is standing alone. My mind drifts back to Dhaka, where only last week my husband and I received a phone call from Rosie’s house, urging us to come quickly. “Uncle is having a serious health problem,” was what the small servant girl had told us. We traveled for what seemed like hours, wondering–afraid to guess what had become of Rosie’s father. The rented apartment where he had stayed in order to work for my father-in-law was in congested Old Town Dhaka, where it is almost impossible to maneuver a car because of the narrow streets and rickshaw and pedestrian traffic. When we arrived, we learned that it had been a massive stroke. Into the dingy apartment we walked, past hollow-eyed servants who had worked with the family for generations, aimlessly wandering children and a clear absence of wealth. And as we entered the room we finally saw him, lying on the floor–his entire body covered by a worn white sheet. Incense burned at both his head and feet. The last time I had seen Rosie she was sitting crumpled and sobbing beside her father’s lifeless body.
The deep, rich voice of Muhammadpur Kala brings me back to the present. She croons a spiritual song as we pass the dishes two by two along the serving line. The rhythm is almost hypnotic. During my first visit to Bangladesh, about four years ago, I had visited the hospital in Dhaka where her son had been receiving care for almost four months. He’d been in a traffic accident–a big strong boy of about sixteen. They still had hope of a miraculous recovery, but it looked to me as though the paralysis had come to stay. Kala complained about how thin he had become and how, at times, he simply lost his will to live. I knew almost no Bangla, but I felt an undeniable bond with Kala and as we left her son’s room I reached out to take her hand. Walking out of the hospital that day I somehow knew that this story would not turn out well, and that she would add her loss to the long list of others that would cut and chisel the motif of her life.
The flash of eyes and teeth bring me back to the present once again. The small girl who answered my questions about the pir shaheb bari the day before grins at me from across the area as our eyes meet for the second or third time. I have yet to learn her name. I feel a stitch of pride as I glance in another direction in time to see Tumki take up the slack in a slow-moving line. She now has all the grace and maturity of a woman.
I feel all kinds of emotions while serving in this line–but mostly love. I have to continuously remind myself, in fact, that I can be of better service when my eyes are not brimming with tears.
The sun is rising in a hazy white sky. I stand in a courtyard packed tightly with women to watch the hoisting of the Islamic flag. As it has been done every year, the pole that holds the flag is erected for the long awaited event–the manazaat or final prayer. The flag helps to guide the last of the pilgrims to the pir shaheb bari. All eyes are riveted as the flag goes up into the hazy sky. Four men work together–each at different stations on a towering bamboo pole. They work together to push the pinnacle to its place. The pinnacle consists of the last piece of painted, red and white bamboo with a red triangular flag, containing Arabic script, a moon and a star–the universal symbol of Islam. There is a red light bulb on top. It is rigged with electrical lines and safety ropes so that the people below are not injured if the contraption happens to fall. As the pole reaches the top, the flag whips out from the wind. I recognize one of my husband’s uncles near the top, and feel dizzy from looking up. Supported by the warm bodies of these women on all sides, I consider the tragedy that we would all face if one or all of the men were to fall–how it would dampen the whole event. Then I catch myself. No, I’m sure that rather than calamity, it would be viewed as a great honor and privilege to meet the creator during this time–for any of these followers. And I’m quite certain that’s how each of these men feel as they clutch the pieces of makeshift ladder that are tied to the bamboo, the voices of the crowd below pulsing a glorious JOH JOH JOH, Allah whoaakbar…..
|Allah whoaakbar||God is almighty|
|bhabi||brother’s or cousin’s wife|
|borka||shroud or covering worn by conservative Muslims|
|kala||mother’s sister or mother’s female cousin|
|oros||religious gathering and celebration|
|palanquin||a box, in which a person is carried, as a mode of transportation|
|pir||pious man; religious leader|
|PirMa||wife of a pious man|
|punjabi||large, loose-fitting shirt worn by a man|
|shaheb||boss; title of respect|
|sharif||title of reverence; holy|
|taubaroke||any blessed food|